I graduated from college two years ago and wanted to live out what I had studied, so I signed on to Jesuit Volunteer Corps Northwest, committing myself to a year of service and faith formation. I was assigned to a Catholic school in Montana, serving residents of two Indian reservations. I was excited, though a bit apprehensive, to delve into a new culture. I expected to learn more about reservation life and American Indian history, and yet I had no idea that my understanding of faith and spirituality, along with what I thought I knew about American history, would be so jarringly challenged.
Memories of these challenges returned last week as I read about St. Kateri Tekakwitha’s canonization in Rome by Pope Benedict XVI. The occasion of the first American Indian to be sainted by the Catholic Church is one of great pride for American Indian Catholics. But it is also an opportunity for both the exploration of a sometimes painful history of two spiritualities colliding as well as hope for future paths of understanding.
Though united by love of neighbor, respect for ancestors, and prayer to the divine, the historical relationship between the two kinds of spirituality is also marked by colonization, forced conversions, boarding school tragedies and a profound divide of culture and religion. It seems that some in the American Indian population may have a difficult time accepting Kateri’s canonization as a joyous moment for their people. Many see the church and Christianity as a main actor in the early oppression of their communities. Christianity and its sometimes overzealous missionaries certainly played a pivotal role in attempts to remove all Indian culture and “civilize” them. The United States government of this period often shared these goals. Certain laws and pieces of legislation, most notably the “Peace Policy” of 1869-1882, were passed to directly aide the missions’ goal of conversion and the “salvation” of the Indians.
The long and tragic history of the American Indian struggle is still felt profoundly within the community. The “missionization” of American Indians was founded on the reluctance of churches to understand their personal spirituality and religion. Christianity was seen as a way to “civilize” the people at the time. Forced assimilation was justified by the missionaries on a moral level, on the belief that forced assimilation was the “right” thing to do. They believed they were saving the individual by forcing him or her to give up everything they knew—their language, religion, dress, and their entire culture.
The long-term impact of forced conversions is seen in the poverty and other social problems American Indian communities still face. Among ethnic groups in the United States, American Indians are found at the bottom of nearly every poverty study. They suffer the lowest per capita income of any ethnic group and highest teenage suicide rate. They face approximately a 60% unemployment rate nationally and a shockingly low life-expectancy (below 60 years old for both men and women, and even lower on certain reservations).
It seems only natural that members of the various American Indian tribes are divided over the canonization of St. Kateri. With a history of such blatant oppression at the hands of the church, how can one overcome that to celebrate one of their own becoming a saint in the Catholic Church?
It is, however, important to remember the good works the church completed and that there is a quite strong American Indian Catholic following in the United States. According to the United States Council of Catholic Bishops, there are approximately 680,000 American Indian Catholics. Catholic and Christian churches and missions are still present and active on reservations across the country. Additionally, there has been a trend of incorporating Native American spirituality into Catholic services taking place on reservations as well. Perhaps the canonization of St. Kateri will lead to greater reconciliation, as a way forward in the effort of the Church to repair relations with communities it once injured in so many ways.
Pope Benedict said at the canonization ceremony, “May her example help us to live where we are, loving Jesus without denying who we are.” Maybe with this new saint, with her ability to maintain American Indian heritage and intertwine it with a strong Catholic faith, a new road forward will be paved toward American Indian equality within the United States with the possible reconciliation of the Church and American Indians who still feel persecuted. Perhaps one day those disheartening statistics will be a thing of the past, empowering American Indians to be their own peoples and maintain a unique and beautiful culture. This can only be done through an effort of all involved in this tragic past to understand, accept, and love one another.
Kat O’Loughlin is a graduate of Saint Anselm College and Trinity College, Dublin. She spent a year working at the St. Labre Indian School in Ashland, MT. She lives in New Hampshire